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Reviews of titles by Gaudiya authors, as well as by other relevant spiritual and secular authors. Tips for reading. Discussions on various books.

Beyond Belief : Islamic Excursions among the converted peoples - V. S. Naipaul



Jagat - Tue, 14 Jun 2005 07:37:16 +0530
V.S. Naipaul. Beyond Belief : Islamic Excursions among the converted peoples. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.

I picked this book up more or less by accident. I have always rather liked Naipaul and I remember having read reviews of this book, so I started reading it. I was wondering whether I would discuss this book here, but I thought that a few nicely turned sentences merited consideration, even for devotees with no direct interest in Islam.

The main thesis of this book, which is fundamentally a journalistic account of four Muslim countries--Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia--is that Islam is an imperialistic religion that makes extraordinary demands on its converts, subverting a healthy sense of identity in these converted peoples.

Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It imakes imperial demands. A convert's world view alters. His holy paces are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil. (page 1)
Naipaul then goes on to prove his point with stories of individuals in these four countries, some of whom are strongly religious, some who feel oppressed by the stifling fundamentalism of the ultra-zealous.

Indonesia is interesting as a country that was never conquered by Muslims, but converted through a more natural process. This process has been going on, however, more or less constantly. Travel to Arabia was facilitated in the 19th, and with the increased number of Hajis, the influence of Wahabbism came to Indonesia, much as it did in the same period in India. The characteristic of Wahabbism is its insistence on a pristine form of Islam that attempts to purify it of any cultural accretions. With independence from Dutch colonial rule, the role of Islam has been ever-increasing, with this fundamentalist sector exercising more and more influence. Naipaul describes the quasi-denial of Indonesia's Hindu, Buddhist and Animist past. Christian converts seem to be able to accomodate this past better than the Muslims, who simply consider those things a dark age to be forgotten or destroyed. Though they are not as extreme as Afghanistan's Taliban blowing away mountainside Buddhas, there is a kind of sadness of loss that permeates the country as a result of this cleavage from the past, this denial of the natural spiritual evolution and the sacredness of one's own land and history.

After describing an ancient sacred spring ("To see this place was to feel its sacredness; it was not necessary to know anything of its history or its myth. I would always have been a sacred place...) Naipaul makes the following comment:

Numen inest the Roman words fitted: the god or spirit of the place was there... Visitors to Pariangan, I was told, greeted one another with the word Sembbahyang "Worship the god." Most of the visitors would have been Muslim, and they would have known with one part of their minds that the salutation was idolatrous. They would have known that the religious intention of the big red mosque was not to honour or claim the sacredness of the place, but to triumph over it. The sacred places of the Muslim faith were connected with the Prophet or his immediate successors. Those places were in another country. There could be no sacred places here. It was part of the law. (page 57-58)
Though in some of the Muslim lands, there are sacred places associated with saints, as in India (there is even a Pir Tola in Nabadwip). But Naipaul is talking about the kind of organic sacredness that is still preserved in a place like India--its trees, mountains and rivers. Reading this passage, one cannot help thinking of the Krishna Janmasthan or Ram Janmabhumi.

It would be rather painful to describe the complete sense of anomy that is described in the Iranian Islamic Republic with its attempt at totalitarianism, arriving at results not far from the more familiar legacies of Communism. Pakistan, however, brings the following lesson to Naipal. The poet Mohammad Iqbal is considered to be the godfather of the Islamic Republic in the Indian subcontinent. (Ironically "Hindustan hamara" was written by him.)

Islam is not like Christianity, Iqbal says. It is not a religion of private conscience and private practice. Islam comes with certain "legal concepts." Tese concepts have "civic significance" and create a kind of social order. The "religious ideal" cannot be separated from the social order. "Therefore the construction of a polity on national lines, if it means a displacement of the Islamic principle of solidarity, is simply unthinkable to a Muslim."

It is an extraordinary speech for a thinking man to have made in the twentieth century. What Iqbal is saying in an involved way is that Muslims can only live with other Muslims. If this was meant seriously, it would have implied that the good world, the one to be striven after, was a purely tribal world, neatly parcelled out, every tribe in his corner. This would have been seen to be fanciful. (p.269)
The reason that I bring these matters up, of course, is because of the very interesting factor of conversion in our own lives.

It is my feeling that the phenomenon of conversion arises from the desacralization of one's own life and the desire to look for it elsewhere. As converts to Vaishnavism, we look to another place, another culture, another language, for our source of a sense of mystery and sacred presence. In some ways, this prolongs our alienation (anomy) from the society around us. For some of us, it is possible to find a compromise with the everyday, non-sacral character of life around us, for others it is a constant struggle to find meaning in anything but the Divine Person we have come to love.

At the same time, there is behind this anxiety an element of defeat--we have been unable to see the Divine Presence in all things. Frankly, we are not interested in his manifestations that do not have the cultural decorations of our beloved Flute-Player and his Bewitcher. It is hard to denigrate this as kanishtha consciousness. Many of us have lived through a fundamentalist stage (nAsty eva nAsty eva nAsty eva) and were quite nasty about it. Like the Muslims above described, we adopted this mythical Indo-centric history of the world (from Aryans to Mahaprabhu and joto ache nagaradi gram). Anomy is not spiritual realization.

A more realistic view would perhaps be that God's love has come to us in this form. This has all become possible through globalization whereby it has been given to us to enrich the world's experience of God by experiencing him as Krishna, and at the same time to serve Krishna by enriching the understanding of him through our own cultural heritage. This is not about denial, but about the richness of human experience.
adiyen - Tue, 14 Jun 2005 10:56:25 +0530
This is all fine, Jagatji.
But have you actually met any traditional Gaudiyas who went through 'conversion' in the Islamic sense?
Rather, have you not noticed the marked tendency to degrees of eclecticism amongst Gaudiyas?
For example the oft-heard 'this completes my former spiritual quest' or 'I was always a devotee since childhood but my sentiments needed to be clarified by my Gurudev...'
Islam is an exceptional case, and I think this makes it a poor analogy, though there certainly are some out there who should heed what you are saying.
And one does not need to be a Hindu to see continuity between former beliefs and Gaudiyaism. Even Sufi Muslims should be able to be Gaudiyas, both simultaneously, and I am convinced there were once many such in Bengal before Wahhabism set in (20th Century).

On my last visit to Braj I admired the paintings inside the domes of Kusum-sarovar: Persian Angels and Sufi Pirs depicted alongside Vaishnava Sadhus and Panditas reading Bhagavat.

Braj is then the place of reconciliation rather than of exclusion. That is, Muslims and Hindus have been reconciled there in the past. Christians could also conceivably be accepted as 'fellow devotees' in the same vein. But modern secular scholars? What about them? I don't see any problem from the Baishnaba side, because Bengalis have been both secularists and Baishnabas for generations (Rabindranath?). Perhaps secularists from a Christian culture need some awareness of their own religious roots as well, though (and isn't that a 'can of worms'?) ...


***
As a contrast and an update to Naipaul's argument, you might like to try the writings of Steven Schwartz. He is a controversial 'Neocon', but curiously he ties this to his beliefs as a Sufi. I did a search for his writings and came up with this gem of eclecticism in his biography, titled 'conversion':

http://www.naqshbandi.org/events/articles/...on_schwartz.htm

Here's a NYT review of Schwartz's book:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html...752C1A9649C8B63

More from the author here:

http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Publ...05/199lssqw.asp
Jagat - Tue, 14 Jun 2005 16:05:39 +0530
Thanks for those references, Adiyen. Schwartz sounds interesting. Reading Naipaul has already been a guilty pleasure (and I am really guilty of so many), so I don't think I'll have time right now for it.

I think the element of comparison is still justifiable. Islam means "submission." Our Iskcon upbringing was all about "surrender." We similarly had imperialistic ambitions in the old days--conquering the world, converting everyone to Krishna consciousness.

There are a number of reasons why many of us have taken a different attitude--historical failures like the sankirtan, guru and Gurukula scandals have made us all very much more sanguine. One of the things that Naipaul argued was that Pakistan is such a mess because people just believed that if they put Islam at the forefront, everything else would be revealed. This was very much our Iskcon mentality, and for a time it seemed to be working.

The basic point of similarity is the "transcendental calling." Our focal point is not in this world. Braj or Mecca, these are just stand-ins.

An interesting comparison or contrast can also be made with the Islamic legalistic frame of mind. It seems that there is a strong element of Islam that really thinks that following every single external law, to submit, is the way to please God. Thus they quibble about every little thing. There is some of this kind of legalism in Hinduism as well, but generally we laugh at it (brinjals, carrots, anyone?). It is this mentality that is so stifling and suffocating in this Wahabbi version of Islam (19th century, really. Began in the 18th. In India, it coincided nicely with the abolute fall of Mughal power and so coincided nicely with Muslim shock at being a colonized people. They blamed their spiritual impurity for their defeat.).

The point I was making recently about the Gita is that it is NOT a rule book like Manu Samhita. It's about direct experience of God's word or personal revelation. Krishna is driving your chariot. Knowledge of our ultimate good lies within us, given by him, and the Gita is about accessing that through surrender. The two concepts are thus quite different. But the tendency to legalism is a kind of psychological substitute for real surrender, or at best a preliminary preparatory process. It's the whole question of "justification." Luther was right--justification is by faith, not by having a beard that is never cut with a razor, nor even by chanting sixteen rounds and following the regulative principles.

The reasons that we are different, as you say, is mainly because of our occidental culture. Not just that of course--it is the particular segment of Occidental society, the kind of questioning, liberal attitude that made it possible for us to convert in the first place. And I know that I for one have converted.
adiyen - Tue, 14 Jun 2005 17:27:24 +0530
Just on the matter of conversion, I had a different experience to yours, Jagat.

The only time I actually had a conversion experience was with Sri BR Sridhar mhrj-ji. And that was a conversion away from Iskcon, which even made Iskcon at that time (20 yrs ago) seem somewhat evil and misguided (especially the prasadam rolleyes.gif ). And it was as much about Hegel or Berkeley as Vedanta, probably more the former. It did make me feel superior and one of the 'elect'. But it wore off after a decade or so, fortunately. It had a beginning and an end, and little to do with Gaudiyaism in the final count.

(I was also as you know a fulltime Iskconite, fully 'initiated', pujari, samkirtanist [both kinds], preacher, the lot. Yet for those 7 years I was at the same time continuing my previous silent meditation on mantra said to be from Shankara parampara, even while living in Mayapur where I had some sort of vision of heaven, or whatever...).

Other than that abberation my life has been much of a continuum and I find my recent Gaudiya experiences are the fulfillment, a kind of inevitability - not anything which I have credit for but just destiny. Guru-kripa mysteriously guiding.
Jagat - Tue, 14 Jun 2005 19:01:29 +0530
QUOTE(adiyen @ Jun 14 2005, 06:57 AM)
Just on the matter of conversion, I had a different experience to yours, Jagat.


This might be a good subject to poll members on. I also felt that my entry into Gaudiya Vaishnvism was a natural progression from my searching days. This would make the definition of conversion as a "radical change of orientation" seem inadequate. However, looked at globally, how can we deny that taking to Krishna consciousness is not a radical change of orientation? I believe that for many if not most of us, at least in Prabhupada's time, it was a radical change that was accompanied by a strong dose of messianism.
braja - Tue, 14 Jun 2005 20:19:12 +0530
QUOTE(Jagat @ Jun 13 2005, 10:07 PM)
Islam is not like Christianity, Iqbal says. It is not a religion of private conscience and private practice. Islam comes with certain "legal concepts." Tese concepts have "civic significance" and create a kind of social order. The "religious ideal" cannot be separated from the social order. "Therefore the construction of a polity on national lines, if it means a displacement of the Islamic principle of solidarity, is simply unthinkable to a Muslim."


Which Christianity is he referring to? Certainly not the evangelical US variety. Nor that of the Crusades or later missionaries. Private conscience and private practice seem to owe greater allegiance to the rise of secular educaton, rationalsim and universalism than to the religion itself. And perhaps an awareness of the earlier excesses of zealotry played a part also (much as we see a mellowed Western Vaisnavism now).

I spent several months living in Malaysia and the differences between that and, say, Utah are probably not all that great. The makeup of the people differs but without the US constituion, forged as it was in reaction to religious domination, the similarities would be much greater.

QUOTE
...Islam is an imperialistic religion that makes extraordinary demands on its converts, subverting a healthy sense of identity in these converted peoples.

...Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief....He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil. (page 1)



You have to wonder how much this reflects the writer's own experience as a cross-cultural refugee. Socities and individuals are always in a state of flux--there is no grand identity, no sweet natural state. "...After a thousand years can remain unresolved"? "Neurosis and nihilism"? Where is the sane society by which to judge these other societies in this manner? How many of us, victims of multiple identity shifts, hanker after the identity of our ancestors of a thousand years ago? (Oh how I'd love to be scrounging out a meagre existence in the Highlands with my identity complete and a battleax at my side.)

Without the kind of idealism that he ascribes, without believing in a pure cultural identity, his conversion thesis loses much of its sting.

Jesus is no closer to any of us than Mahaprabhu, Mohammed, or even Mickey Mouse.

(Gotta run.)
Anand - Tue, 14 Jun 2005 21:54:05 +0530
I think for us Gaudiyas, this sense of time and culture belonging; this itself merits examination. It keeps us from maturing essentially; perhaps making us procrastinators, idolatries of excuses?

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur was aware of globalization. He does not appear to have had a problem seeing any and all spiritual search culminating in Braj. If radical-fundamentalism of any kind was an issue for him, it was from the perspective that it is an inevitable occurrence within the human condition. And this, precisely, must be overcome. If incorporating the human element into our Gaudiya experience works, thenů But humanity alone has no meaning, and we all gradually and successfully crawl, walk away, or run from it.
adiyen - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 06:34:55 +0530
Brajaji,
I think your post contains a classic logical fallacy.

Say it is asserted 'A is better than B',

but someone reponds 'but A is not perfect therefore you are wrong',

s/he is confusing 'better' (as measured on a relative scale) with 'best' which was never part of the original assertion.

good-better-best : all different :^)

(Then you will perhaps say, 'But how can we compare?' The answer would be, by doing a lifetime of study and reflection as Naipaul has done.)

Calling VS Naipual an idealist seems quite a stretch, in fact it is the types of social flux you describe which VS has been writing about all his long career. His writings are very nuanced. Including this very book, but all writing must say something in the end.

Did you know that Naipaul and Rushdie have recently found themselves at extreme odds arguing Hindu versus Muslim issues? Very strange for Rushdie especially, while Naipaul has married a Pakistani journalist. Flux indeed.

Did you ever look at Ronald Inden's 'Imagining India', where he argues at enormous length that almost all Indologists have been Essentialists? Extraordinary stuff, yet as one of his critics points out, in the final chapter he put forward his own theory which was as essentialist as all those he attacked. blink.gif As I said, all writing must say something in the end. (Inden's theory, if I understand it, was that all Indians are united culturally by unique bathing practices - rather insightful actually). I have the book here and can scan some of it if anyone's interested, but it is heavy going.

I favour Max Weber's critique of modern society in The Protestant Ethic and The Capitalist Spirit, where he compares ultra-rationalist societies with less rational, more emotional and instinctive ones. He explicitly warns that exccessive rationalism leads to de-spiritualisation ('dis-enchantmen') and a de-humanised 'Iron Cage'.

***
Anand: I liked your post.
Jagat - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 06:56:48 +0530
Braja, perhaps if you think of native Americans, aboriginal Australians or Maoris, you will get a little idea of what Naipaul is getting at. I have already returned the book to the library and so I am unable to find the exact quote, but Naipaul says in one place that there is a tradeoff that is made when one gives up the sanctity of the local for something that has more universal meaningfulness.

The reason that these questions resonated with me is because I have often thought of the situation of the convert to KC. I see much in the Muslim convert that parallels my own experience, including the experience of fundamentalism.
braja - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 07:07:36 +0530
QUOTE(adiyen @ Jun 15 2005, 09:04 PM)
Brajaji,
I think your post contains a classic logical fallacy.



So you think he is accurate in saying something like this: "The convert has to turn away from everything that is his" with regard to a country like Malaysia? That's inverse idealism to me, i.e. another exaggeration. There is no perfect state and there is no perfect convert...so therefore better to temper the argument. "Many/some converts turn away from everything/many things that are theirs." Throwing around absolutisms as he has done weakens his argument in my book.

"Some countries struggle for an identity between their heritage and their more recent adoption of Islam" is a more sound argument--even if it doesn't say as much--than labelling a set of countries neurotic based upon an accretion of exaggerations.

Anyway, you get the idea. I don't view my objections as a logical fallacy. It is Naipaul's wording that has done away with relativities. But I am blind--especially as I haven't even read the book. laugh.gif

I am also biased as I find his writing tedious and somewhat pompous. Rushdie's nose-bleeds-while-kneeling-in-prayer-to-Allah, now that is writing.
Jagat - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 07:25:38 +0530
I don't think he's saying "A convert has to turn away..." But certainly in the case of Islam, there is a constant pressure to do so. This can be justifiably considered neurotic.

I found Naipaul occasionally very good, but I did not finish the book. I had heard everything I needed to. There were too many stories and not enough truly deep analysis. Too much about himself, and depending too much on personal interviews for material.
adiyen - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 07:41:35 +0530
Braja,
Maybe you were unaware of the steady growth of extremism throughout the region, which has been called Wahhabism or perhaps Saudification. It is certainly very noticeable in Indonesia where 30 years ago no-one wore head scarfs while now even Balinese dancers performing in Jakarta must ridiculously cover even their hands while dancing (I have heard one report). Perhaps you are too young to have noticed this. Indonesians in Jakarta 30 years ago spoke openly of their Hindu Buddist roots, now everything has changed. I am less clear on what is going on in Malaysia but there are often strong undercurrents which visitors miss.

Bangladesh Islam used to also have a unique identity, but it is said that the Wahhabis are making major inroads there now. For Malaysia it may only be a matter of time...

So yes, I think Naipaul's description is very accurate, quite prescient considering it was written decades ago - but then the phemonenon was already in Pakistan at that time and the 'Wahhabification' of Indian Islam already a vast cancer on the Subcontinent for most of the 20th century. Bring back the Sufis!
braja - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 07:50:44 +0530
QUOTE(Jagat @ Jun 15 2005, 09:26 PM)
Braja, perhaps if you think of native Americans, aboriginal Australians or Maoris, you will get a little idea of what Naipaul is getting at. I have already returned the book to the library and so I am unable to find the exact quote, but Naipaul says in one place that there is a tradeoff that is made when one gives up the sanctity of the local for something that has more universal meaningfulness.


Certainly, but look at the effect of modern commerce and entertainment. The local is being forfeited almost continuously in favor of the universal--and I seriously doubt that there existed a time or state in which that tendency differed. Native Americans traded for guns. Why? To enable a greater chance of survival and enjoyment. The Maori killed each other and perhaps wiped out the original inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maoriori. The shows the Maori are famous for now as part of sports events, tourist ventures, government undertakings, etc., involve weapons and postures that sometimes refer to cannibalism. Buying a cool didgereedoo CD from Amazon is quite a stretch from living an almost caveman-like existence eating witchetty grubs. Obviously I've loaded those examples up but can any of those groups claim some heyday in which they were self-actualized and content (as opposed to neurotic and nihilistic.) My worldview says no. For two reasons:

1. I don't think a culture, state, or group can ever come close to being represented as a person, but, more importantly,

2. human nature and existence are what they are--a struggle for surivial in an environment of limited resources.

The Maori before the arrival of the Europeans exist in some state of greater completeness only in hindsight.

QUOTE
The reason that these questions resonated with me is because I have often thought of the situation of the convert to KC. I see much in the Muslim convert that parallels my own experience, including the experience of fundamentalism.


I remember an old article by one of the earlier gurukuli graduates--it might have been Raghunatha Dasanudasa or Manu--in which the author compared the gurukulis to mermaids, having no real position in either the ocean or on land.

I appreciate your angle here with regard to the conversion process but my own position reflects my experience: most of the pressure to convert and conform came from within. So, except in the case of children or extreme situations, I have a really hard time understanding social pressure as the primary force. Thus Naipaul's (truncated) argument looks both accusatory and inaccurate and doesn't represent my conversion process. Maybe I'm just weird though. I did join the Anarchist Alliance when I was 14.

Anyways, must off to bed.
adiyen - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 07:59:30 +0530
"The convert has to turn away from everything that is his"

In fact this was precisely what happened to South Asian Muslims from the 19th to 20th centuries, in what was then India and when they ventured outside (like Naipaul from the Caribbean South Asian diaspora).

It is said that before foreign, often Saudi, proselytising, many or even most Indian Muslims did not know that they were not just a sect of Hinduism. They mixed freely with Hindus and worshipped at each other's shrines. Early Bengali Muslim books refer to God as 'Narayan' and 'Bhagavan'. See the writings of Richard Eaton.

Here is a heartfelt plea from Guyana near Naipaul's Trinidad, which describes how Saudi's turned their youth against their Indian heritage - 'away from everything that is' theirs:

http://www.guyana.org/features/guyanese_muslim.html

quote:

"Today in Guyana there is much controversy as to the cultural aspects that Muslims brought from the subcontinent beginning with their migration in the year 1838. There exist two camps in Guyana, one comprising the younger generation who prefer to get rid of the `Indo-Iranian' heritage, and the other the older generation who would like to preserve this tradition. Some link this tradition to Hinduism and a continuous attempt is being made to purge `cultural Islam' of `un-Islamic' innovations (bida'). Van der Veer notes that these forms, brought by the indentured immigrants to the Caribbean, were heavily influenced by the cultural patterns of the subcontinent, as opposed to those of the Middle East.(n7) Aeysha Khan quotes Samaroo: `in modern day Trinidad and Guyana, where there are substantial Muslim populations, there is much confusion, often conflict, between the two types of Islam'.(n8) In Guyana today the younger generation who have studied in the Arabic-speaking world prefer Arabic over Urdu and view South Asian traditions as un-Islamic..."
braja - Thu, 16 Jun 2005 18:32:04 +0530
QUOTE(adiyen @ Jun 15 2005, 10:11 PM)
Maybe you were unaware of the steady growth of extremism throughout the region, which has been called Wahhabism or perhaps Saudification.


Yes, of course but my point is that it does not happen in a vacuum and to make specious arguments based upon oversimplifications advances the cause of ignorance rather than bringing anyone closer to understanding. Where is modern Islamic extremism without post-colonialism and the rise of fledgling nation states? Where is it without the creation of the state of Israel and the disposession of the Palestinians? Where is it without US "imperialism" or the perception thereof? Where is it without economic hardship and disparity--and, conversely, without the perverse wealth brought about by oil ownership? These are all prime factors that lie outside the direct realm of Islam so to make general statements along the lines of "Islam is..." and to compare that with Christianity, without taking into consideration the circumstantial forces is simplistic and potentially misleading and/or bigotted.

Given those same circumstances, many creeds--whether based on beliefs, race or something else--could have developed in a similar manner.